When Billy Cobham was scouting locations to record his new album, Crosswinds: Time Lapse Photos, it didn’t take him long to decide that Sweetwater Studios, in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, was going to be one of them. “It’s like a cathedral, an institution, with all that you could ever want,” the drummer says. “All you needed was an engineer that knew what it was all about.”
With Mark Hornsby, Cobham got more than he’d hoped for: a seasoned technician with an appreciation for Cobham’s place in music history. “Billy is known as a jazz cat, but he’s far deeper than that,” Hornsby says. “He’s a very diverse musician and person. We hit it off from a personality point of view first and foremost, and that set the stage for—as it always does—working in the studio together. When Billy first toured the studio, he said, ‘This is a really cool vibe you’ve got going here. Let’s talk some more.’”
Now Sweetwater’s Vice President of Music Production and Senior Producer/Engineer, Hornsby came to the facility in 2012 after getting his start in Nashville, where an uncle, himself an award-winning engineer, advised Hornsby to diversify. Point taken; his résumé now includes work on recordings ranging from jazz to rock, gospel, and classical. “I would get bored if I did the same type of music over and over again,” he says.
In recording Cobham and his accompanists, Hornsby’s approach was, he says, “to make the technology stay out of the way, to capture people sitting in a room looking at each other, making eye contact, engaging in the human experience of making music.” At Sweetwater, Cobham and his band recorded a few takes of each song live in the studio, using Pro Tools, with Hornsby focusing on “the vibe, the performance. It doesn’t matter how much technology and how much money we throw at it,” he says. “It’s either inspiring to listen to or it’s not.”
Founded in 1979 by Chuck Surack, Sweetwater Studios began its life as a four-track facility housed in a Volkswagen bus. As the studio continued to update and grow, Sweetwater ultimately expanded beyond production into retail and other areas. By 2016, Sweetwater.com had become the largest online retailer of music equipment and instruments in the United States. Today, the company has 17 full-time employees plus part-timers, three recording studios, and a 250-seat performance theater.
None of this growth happened accidentally. Surack, who remains Sweetwater’s president and CEO, has always prided himself on the company’s artist-friendly philosophy. “Artists and musicians come here from all over the world to make a record in an environment that has what musicians desire,” says Hornsby. “They have access to more equipment, more gear, than anywhere else in the world.”
“I found it a really great experience,” Cobham says.
So did Hornsby. “What we recorded with Billy and the band that week translated beautifully in the studio, and I am looking forward to hearing how the final product turned out.”